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Concussion, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Post-Concussive Syndrome? Functional Medicine Can Help!

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

Concussions, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and their long-term effects are a widespread problem: almost 3 million people visit emergency rooms with some form of traumatic brain injury each year (1, 2). It is surprising then that there aren’t many conventional treatments to help heal the brain, mitigate long-term effects, or even successfully treat symptoms without side effects. Functional medicine, however, has provided relief for many people through a variety of treatments that often include pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy, dietary changes, and Omega-3 and CBD supplementation.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic Brain Injury and Concussions

A traumatic brain injury is any disruption in normal brain function. The most common causes of direct trauma are falls, bumps, blows, or an object penetrating the skull (2, 3). Jolts from any rapid acceleration and then deceleration, such as whiplash or blast injuries, can cause TBI. Cerebrospinal fluid surrounds our brain, cushioning and protecting it from contact with the hard skull. While many falls, bumps, and jolts happen each day and don’t result in trauma, any time the brain touches the skull it can cause a wide range of issues. Blood vessels can tear, nerve fibers can pull, or the brain itself can be bruised (2). While severity varies, any form of TBI is serious and needs attention quickly.

One of the most common and more “mild” forms of traumatic brain injury is a concussion. About 1 in 1,000 people experience concussions, most commonly those 75+ years old, 15-24 years old (due to sports), and children ages 0-4 (2, 3, 4). Symptoms of concussions include (2):

  • Headache

  • Memory loss, usually around the time of the injury

  • Double or blurry vision

  • Dizziness or imbalance

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Ringing ears

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much

  • Loss of smell or taste

While many concussions will go away with proper rest and care, sometimes swelling or other adverse effects can occur after the initial injury (2). More severe cases of concussions and traumatic brain injury can also cause symptoms such as motor dysfunction, severe sensory changes, cognitive changes (shortened attention span, overstimulation, distractedness), difficulty understanding or following directions, confusion, or even difficulty expressing words or thoughts (2).

While the severity of the injury often determines the timeline for healing, most concussion symptoms will subside in about 1-3 weeks (5). However, some people find that their symptoms may last anywhere from one month to many years (5).

Post-Concussion Syndrome and Other Long-Term Effects

When symptoms of a concussion last far beyond the usual recovery period, it is called post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Those who experience PCS exhibit several concussive and neurological symptoms that affect their ability to function well. About 10% of teens experience long-term symptoms, and up to 30% of people in other age groups will as well (5). There are four main aspects that PCS can affect: physical health, sleep, cognitive functioning, and mood and behavior (5).

Physical health effects often show up as a continuation of the symptoms experienced during the acute phase of the injury. Headache, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light or noise, vision changes, ringing in ears, and fatigue are all commonly reported by those with PCS (5, 6). Sleep is another factor that is often affected. Many people have insomnia, and interestingly, others report sleeping too much (5, 6).

Cognitive function changes can include short-term memory loss, either specifically around the time of injury or general poor memory (5). Trouble concentrating or multi-tasking, as well as slower processing, are other effects seen in post-concussive syndrome. Unfortunately, the neurological symptoms do not stop there. Traumatic brain injuries can affect mood and behavior, resulting in anxiety, panic attacks, depression, irritability, and even drastic mood changes such as irrational anger or increased sadness (5).

More severe traumatic brain injuries can also create disorders outside of the range of PCS, especially if the person sustains more than one concussion or injury. Seizures, sleep disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and neuroendocrine dysregulation are among the most commonly reported (6).

There is still ongoing discussion about the cause of long-term symptoms, as well as what makes someone more likely to develop PCS. Some physicians believe that PCS has roots in physical, structural damage to the brain, or even messaging system disruption and malfunction. Others believe that it is related to psychological factors, given that many of the symptoms of PCS overlap with mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (6). And while there isn’t a significant quantity of evidence to link the risk of developing PCS to many specific factors, some research has linked a higher chance to those with a history of physiological conditions. These include depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as less severe forms of emotional or mental factors, such as significant sources of stress, poor coping skills, and inadequate social support (6).

Treatment Options for Brain Injuries and PCS

Although scientists and physicians have done an incredible amount of research on the brain, there is still quite a bit that we don’t know. While there are some set treatments for concussions, many people still do not find total relief, especially for more severe types of traumatic brain injury and many long-term symptoms.

Rest is always the first and most important treatment option for healing any brain injury. After that, the main route of conventional treatment is symptom management (1, 6). While some people may find that conventional medications can help to treat pain, mood changes, and sleep disorders, many others are looking for ways to treat their symptoms, not just reduce their effects. Omega-3 fatty acids, diet changes, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, and CBD have helped many of our clients to find healing.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids